Born in the Middle of a Move: vol. 4

More than a year before we started packing, a friend came over to the apartment for the first time.
"Are you moving?," she said, looking over my shoulder, ending our hello hug.
I mentally reviewed the space trying to remember if she’d caught sight of a box or something that suggested a move. Then I realized she was talking about our stuff...or lack of it. To her, the sparse decor- the open space, the TV-less living room, the small things organized in jars- suggested a less-than-fully occupied home, a space whose occupants were on their way to another destination.  

We spent most of the year imagining that we’d ship our furniture and whatever didn’t fit into our luggage to Benin, but after months of getting astronomical quotes from shipping companies, we decided it made more sense to sell all of our furniture and to take only what could fit into suitcases. We paid the airline for extra luggage. We bought a scale. We flipped to a new page of a worn yellow legal pad and made note of the weight and dimension of all of the possessions that form the shape of our lives. We sold things we still loved. We admitted the truth about what we didn’t. We did what all movers and spring cleaners have done: we looked at our stuff- the objects that dwell among us- with fresh eyes, with a perception that matched sentiment to practicality, necessity to desire, need to greed, dreams to reality.

The absence of an object can recall as much accomplishment or failure as its presence. Each day that I wrap things in paper and bubble wrap, nestling them in foam-padded unbreakable suitcases, I handle items that I haven’t touched or considered in years. Each of them represents moments, phases, transitions. And each period evokes a sense of accomplishment or failure, pride or shame. What was wrong during that time? What didn’t work? What memories did I fail to capture? What did I keep? What did I trash? Did I preserve too much or not enough?

I was an adult the first time I ever saw a baby picture of myself. It was in my first passport, the one my mother held in her purse in a stack of five others when we moved from Nigeria to the U.S. I was a year old, the youngest traveler with my mother and four siblings. It was my very first move. Growing up I saw plenty baby pictures of my siblings, but I only appeared in photos when I was about three years old. My mother always told me she’d left this evidence of my infancy behind in Nigeria, but when I went to Nigeria and squinted at faded rectangles and squares filled with cousins and siblings and found that I was not there, I had to accept the most probable truth: she hadn’t left them, there weren’t any. At first, this struck me as a major failing. I felt aggrieved, as if I lacked continuity without this certain documentation of my earliest years. But the knowledge that no such photos exist (not that I simply hadn’t seen them) helped me put those years in context. I was born in the middle of a move, when the family was making preparations to move back to my mother’s hometown in South Carolina after years in Lagos. She had to get passports for my brother and me, who were born in Nigeria, she had to pack, she had to take care of four small children (the oldest was nine) and an infant, and she worked full-time. We left just a year after I was born. I have no idea how she managed to do all of this. I can barely manage my own move, and I forget to take pictures of people dear to me all the time. What I initially thought of as a failure, I could now see as just another indication of the countless objects- real or imagined- that get lost in the undertow of movement. Years later when I asked about my first passport, my mother forgot that I even had one. If I hadn’t insisted, I never would have seen the only baby picture I own.  

When it comes to personal belongings, there are two types of people: nouns and verbs. The noun people imagine life as if it were a house and all the objects in it pieces of a monument to their lives. The people in the other group, the verb people, think of themselves as travelers through life who only wish to make an unburdened trip. They accumulate as little as possible as if to remain mobile, keep the weight off, and not hinder the flight. They fear attachment to people, places, things. They do not crave each new noun that comes into their purview as a potential affirmation of existence, as if a new object could confirm that they are alive or that they have been all the places they have ever been.

A few weeks ago, I saw a movie called Free Solo. Not the Hans Solo movie, this was a National Geographic documentary about the first man, Alex Honnold, to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Park without the use of ropes and holsters, a style known as free solo. It’s so dangerous that even some of the most experienced climbers don’t do it. When I saw it, the theater was full of people who, like me, pressed sweaty palms into arm rests and gasped audibly as we watched a man balance his life on crags of rock, in the tension of his own hands and feet. Any failure, any slip, any oversight could plunge him into raw, unforgiving space. Honnold is clearly a verb. He keeps the weight of his objects light; doing anything else could be fatal. But even if he slipped, could his unencumbered life, lived exactly as he wished, ever be tied to failure?  

It would be convenient to imagine that noun people are sentimental, flowery types while verb people are unattached and soulless, but there are never enough categories for people and they are rarely exact. I don’t enjoy accumulating things, but I am quite sentimental. I have a verb friend who calls herself a minimalist as if it is more a statement of character than of circumstance- she moves frequently and gets rid of things in every transition. I like the freedom of not having a lot of things, but I believe in the significance of objects. I think that homes should be a bit like ancient Egyptian tombs with altars to the self carefully interspersed throughout.

The amount of things you own, what objects claim your space, whether you are a noun, a verb, a minimalist, or a happy consumer is all relative. But moving makes you consider these things. Our things hold us as we hold them. I propose that we carry them lightly, allowing them to give us continuity, a sense of time and place. Select the tangible bits and pieces carefully, the ones that represent your particular passage through life, these palpable reminders of the way the earth feels when your feet meet it, relics of memories and love and ancestors, the whole bit.